In the follow-up to his APR/Honickman First Book Prize–winning debut, Totem, Gregory Pardlo concerns himself with age-old philosophical questions in the context of modern life: What does it mean to be a son? Father? American? African American? What does it mean to be in a body at all? The collection’s opening poem, “Written By Himself,” introduces this inquiry with a series of anaphoric lines: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” From there, Pardlo tries on different trappings of identity—including autobiographical narratives about the poet’s life in Brooklyn, a quartet of persona poems in the voice of Gayl Jones’s seminal character Ursa Corregidora, and many poems engaging with the lives and works of great philosophers throughout history. “Problemata” borrows its title and concept from an Aristotelian collection of problems written in question-and-answer form, but updates the matters at hand: veterans’ rights, what’s admirable about “the dear evangelists who canvass our homes / Saturday mornings,” an estranged brother, and neighborhood boys setting off illegal fireworks. The chilling multisection prose poem “Alienation Effects” inhabits the voice of famed French theorist Louis Althusser to try to make sense of Althusser’s murder of his wife, Hélène. Violence and unrest may abound in these poems, but Pardlo’s book is not a bleak one; to raise his existential questions seems more important than to answer them. “You are Caliban / and Crusoe, perpetual stranger with a fork / in the socket of life’s livid grid,” he writes. But then: “You are home now, outsider, for what that’s worth.”
This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2014.